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Loneliness — the Paradox of the Modern Workplace

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You just got a job at an awesome company. The first few months feel so great, everything’s so exciting! The job is challenging, the open-space office is full of light, and your new company laptop is so much better than the old one. There are sooo many types of coffee in the kitchen, you can’t even try them all!

You’re doing an awesome job and even more exciting projects are coming. You feel so motivated! You say to yourself: “I finally found my dream job!”

However, months keep passing by and the excitement slowly starts going down. Okay, that’s normal. It can’t always be perfect, you think.

But, more months keep passing by and you start detecting a feeling that, well, you haven’t felt in a long, long time. You are in the office but it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone there. Everyone’s with their headphones on, or talking to each other and laughing about stuff you have no idea about.

Your contact with your colleagues has devolved only into emails, short greetings, and meaningless small talk in the kitchen while you’re making your coffee. People are even eating at their desks, trying to finish up more work.

You’ve been here for a year now and it feels like you know no one. You expected to have made some friends by now, but everyone is like a stranger. And that feeling becomes even stronger. It feels like it’s…. Loneliness.

You don’t feel the freedom to say things out loud, you’re afraid of embarrassment. After all, everyone’s been here for a long time, they’re just waiting for an opportunity to tease the rookie.

And, your self-esteem starts going down. You notice that no one even cares about you as a person, as long as you keep finishing your tasks.

You keep hoping this feeling will go away, but it doesn’t. It even grows bigger.

Finally, you decide you can’t take it anymore. You decide to quit. Loneliness has made your life in that company unsupportable.

Loneliness is growing into an epidemic

The workplace is where you spend most of the time. There are tons of people around you and sometimes you spend more time with them than with your family. However, connections between co-workers become less and less common every day.

These relationships can be crucial to our performance and the overall performance of the company. More importantly, if missing, they can have a huge negative impact on our mental health. Feeling like you don’t belong to your work community can develop loneliness, and eventually, even burnout.

Employers and managers often expect relationships between coworkers to develop on their own. They don’t put too much effort into encouraging a friendly atmosphere and don’t notice when something goes wrong.

Research, on the other hand, proves the opposite. Gallup’s well-being research claims that only 30% of employees have a best friend at work. This might sound like a strange argument, but Gallup researchers claim that this is a much better predictor of someone’s future at a workplace than just having a friend or a good friend. According to them, employees who have a best friend at work “are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.”

And, things get even worse. EY has discovered that 40% of employees feel isolated at work, which makes them less productive. The modern workplace has put us into a paradox — we have so many tools, and yet, we are cut off.

Loneliness is even growing into an epidemic — health insurer Cigna has discovered that almost half of all Americans feel lonely or left out. Other developed countries also show alarming results — one in half people in the UK and Canada feel lonely. And, the percentage is probably higher — imagine how many of them don’t want to admit it.

When loneliness becomes a dominant feeling, it can be a major disruptor of the employee’s productivity and perception of their work environment.

Although it’s usually considered as personal, employers need to address this issue in order to prevent emotional withdrawal from the entire organization. It can’t be treated as something that individuals need to solve by themselves because it can affect teamwork and the overall company performance. Loneliness has become both a health issue and a business challenge.

Steven Miranda of Cornell University spoke to Fortune in 2014, addressing the issue and highlighting that it affects a company’s overall performance because people who lack social connections won’t put that much effort.

“When you walk into the office every morning, you’re either thinking, ‘I’m pumped about being here. I’m going to get so much done,’ or ‘How quickly can 5 o’clock come?’” “I would bet my bottom dollar that people who are lonely and disengaged at work deliver far less discretionary effort than people who have a support system or a go-to person [at work].”

Things are even more serious with remote workers. Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work highlights loneliness as a very common physical and mental health problem that puts remote workers at risk. These people don’t get social encouragement like people who work in offices, so they feel more lonely. Another problem that occurs, in this case, is that they often work late, so they don’t get to spend too much time with friends, resulting in the feeling of being “cut off”.

How should HR address these problems?

Now that we know how serious loneliness can be as a health issue, we can agree that it’s a problem the company should address. HR managers are the ones who need to educate team leaders and company managers to see which employees are facing mental health issues. Moreover, they need to know how to react and help employees overcome their problems.

Employees who don’t show enough interest and lose focus quickly can be suffering from loneliness. These people usually don’t interact too much with their colleagues and even show anxiety in some situations. They become less and less productive and sometimes even avoid to go to work. They raise their voices too often and can get irritated in just a few seconds. Some experts even relate low morale to feeling lonely. These are some symptoms team leaders and managers should address when they notice them in some of their employees.

The first solution that would probably come up is to organize a party where everyone could drink, sing, and have fun. This may be some initial activity to start with, but it definitely won’t solve the problem. They could affect loneliness only on the surface, but the feeling will remain present when the party is over.

The problem that arises, in this case, is that people are disconnected and won’t interact with other people at the party a lot more than they do it normally. They simply feel like they don’t belong in the group. And, sitting lonely at a party while you’re watching how everyone else is having fun might even make things worse.

Instead, HR managers and team leaders should focus on building deep, meaningful relationships between employees. These relationships get established with conversations in small groups where everyone talks about their interests and experiences. This way, people could bond on the basis of shared hobbies or experiences.

I’ve seen one particular method that really works in these cases. It’s kind of a game where everyone gets a colleague they need to do a presentation about. During the presentation, they focus on their best skills, most interesting experiences, and hobbies. This way, people can get to know their own colleagues and find out what they’re best at, which could take appreciation on a higher level.

What should you do if you feel lonely as an employee?

You might feel lonely even if you have friends, colleagues, and family. You can have thousands of people around you and still feel disconnected. Feeling lonely can even make you feel helpless. However, there are certain things you can do to improve this situation.

They probably care more than you think

Maybe some situations made you believe that your co-workers aren’t interested in you, so you decided to back off completely. Maybe it’s time to rethink this decision. You never even got to know these people and see if they are really interested in you. If they hang out with other people, there’s probably a place for you in their gang too. After all, no company can work as a closed group. They must be opened to new people because employee fluctuation is high nowadays. If you show some interest in their hobbies or skills, you’ll probably find someone interesting to hang out with.

Show them that you are happy to be here

Never miss a situation where you can show how much you appreciate the opportunity that’s been given to you. Reach out to senior colleagues and ask them about advice and about their past work. This way, you’ll show that you feel thankful for the possibility to work with them and learn from them. Show that you like the company and your role in it.

Tell your team colleagues they’ve done a great job and that you appreciate their work. That’s how you’ll become liked and more importantly, respected.

Make the company values your own

Employees who stay in a company longer usually share the same characteristics as other team members. Moreover, these employees find their own place in the company because they share the same attitude as the company. Colleagues who don’t share the same beliefs and values will often feel like they don’t belong here.

Try analyzing the company values and think of ways you can incorporate them into your own working. Make gestures that align with the company culture and show that your values are the same as the company values.

Invite your colleagues to gatherings

Don’t wait for people to invite you somewhere. Make an event for your colleagues so you can get to know them better. This way, you can show them how interesting and fun you can be outside the office.

If you’re new, you could organize a gathering and invite everyone to establish friendly and relaxed connections from the beginning. It doesn’t have to be something huge — it’s even better when you could all just sit down and talk in a loosen atmosphere.

Don’t miss teambuildings and suggest some by yourself as well. Sports activities like mountain climbing or running a marathon together are great ways for colleagues to support each other out of the office too.

Replace that email with some face-to-face talk

Sometimes you spend days exchanging emails with your colleagues before you get to a decision. Things would be much simpler if you’d just go over there, talk to them, and solve the issue in a few minutes.

Emails don’t have body language. If you want to smile at someone, they won’t see it. Walking over would enable you to make a friendly conversation with your colleague, which can’t be felt through an email.

Furthermore, reduce social networks and digital collaboration tools as much as you can. They are the reason why loneliness became an epidemic in the first place. They are taking away our real social skills.

Say hello

Say hello and smile to everyone when passing by. Everyone wants to hang out with a positive person who smiles often. Small gestures like this can be the start of your friendly connections.

The shy co-worker will feel even shyer when they are expected to interact with a big, loud group of people they don’t know anything about. Bonding them with people who share their interests is a much effective way to get someone to open up and feel like they do belong in the group.

Solutions should go way beyond office parties and drinkabouts. People should have opportunities to share meaning with their colleagues, and that’s where real relationships start.

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